Characteristics of True Leadership

What is the one characteristic that is true of all leaders? Is it being tall? Being charismatic? Having a commanding presence? Being action orientated? Or just being honest and ethical?

• It is none of these.
• Rather, all leaders have a drive to differentiate themselves from their peers - whether the individual is a person, a team, a business, a sports club or a nation.
• When individuals differentiate themselves they stand out from their peers (or group).
• Some are seen as deviants and rejected; others are seen as leaders and followed.
• Some instances of leadership are so obviously admirable that followers need no persuasion to jump on the bandwagon - this is leading by example, other instances of leadership require the leader to attempt to persuade followers directly and explicitly.
• Traditional leadership theory narrowly focuses on direct, conscious influence attempts.
• But we imitate people we admire more than is generally acknowledged, hence more leadership is indirect and unintentional than is commonly realized.
• This broader view of leadership captures how it is possible to lead in situations other than when you have power over others in a large organization - a market leader, a league leading sports team, the leader in a golf tournament, an innovative knowledge worker - all have one thing in common - being better at differentiating themselves than others.

Leadership as Discovery:
• Leadership = doing things different, either doing existing things better or doing different things.
• In simple situations it isn't hard to see a better direction and advocate it to others.
• Here, new directions are taken on the basis of discrete, conscious decisions.
• In more complex situations, it is often necessary to discover new directions through trial and error.
• Here, new directions emerge through someone discovering a new way of doing things.
• New directions emerging through trial and error is totally different from changing direction based on an all-or-nothing discrete decision.
• As organizational environments become increasingly complex, more and more new directions will have to emerge through trial and error (organizational learning).
• Here, the leaders are those employees who, regardless of their status or influencing skills, discover new directions to pursue.
• Wherever complexity reigns, organizations that encourage leadership from all employees will be more successful than those that restrict leadership to managers.

How this applies to large organizations:
• You can differentiate yourself in either of two ways - by doing what others are doing only better or by doing something different (or advocating doing things better or different).
• Leaders devise or promote new directions, new ways of doing things, managers execute existing directions.
• All organizations have two corresponding tasks - to deliver existing services efficiently and to create new services.
• Leadership is associated with the latter, management with the former.
• The one essential characteristic of all leaders is striving to achieve at the highest level and this leads others to want to follow their example.
• A chief executive might have all the charisma in the world, but without a compelling idea of how to make things better, no leadership can be shown by this person.
• Alternatively, someone lower down in the organization with a compelling idea but no charisma could lead the organization in a new direction - provided enough opportunists jumped on the bandwagon with little or no persuasion.
• Of course being persuasive often helps a leader get others on board faster, but persuasiveness is not an essential characteristic of leadership because it is possible to lead without it.
• All situations where people lead by example do not include explicit persuasion
• All market leaders and sports leaders lead by setting a compelling example alone - here of course not only is no attempt made to persuade competitors to follow, close following is discouraged.

Why is this important?
• Traditional leadership theory is dis-empowering - it confines leadership to the top.
• There are two kinds of empowerment - managerial and leadership.
• Managerial empowerment lets employees make decisions in the execution tasks.
• Leadership empowerment asks employees at all levels to display leadership.
• When leading edge knowledge workers develop new products, senior executives operate more as venture capitalists than leaders - investing in the best ideas (leadership) emerging from below;

• This new perspective on leadership is important because it advocates dispersing leadership throughout organizations rather than monopolizing it at the top.
• Everyone can lead by setting an example for others regardless of what other skills they have or do not have for influencing people more directly.